Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Fiona-Jane Weston/
Fiona-Jane Weston is an actor, singer, and writer. Her solo shows have played to packed houses at The Other Palace, The Pheasantry, Crazy Coqs (Brasserie Zèdel), as well as on national and overseas tours.
Fiona-Jane has received rave reviews for her unique take on historical themes and key events in history, most notably women’s history. Her highly acclaimed shows include Wartime Women, looking at the roles women have historically played in warfare and Looking For Lansbury, celebrating the life, heritage and extraordinary career of Dame Angela Lansbury, and musical chat show Fiona-Jane and West End Friends.
She is soon to launch a cabaret and theatre consultancy service that helps with all aspects of creating and managing a small-scale show. Fiona-Jane also writes about theatre and cabaret on her blog Capital Cabarets and Shows Scene, in addition to and for prestigious theatre blogs such as Musical Theatre Review. She has been featured in The Times, The Guardian and London Live TV, amongst other media outlets.
Take it away, Fiona-Jane!
What inspired you to combine your work as a cabaret artist with your interest in women’s history?
Even as a young girl I loved history, and part of my childhood was spent in Queensland, Australia – the state where Germaine Greer grew up and launched her books on feminism. I was studying at an all-girls school and her philosophies inspired me in my formative years. I became particularly fascinated by the concept of Herstory.
Again, even as a young girl, I knew I was going to become a performer, despite my parents’ opposition. In order to keep the peace, I did go down the academic route at university and studied Modern Asian Studies, specialising in Chinese language, politics and sociology.
This led me to examine the changing (and not so changing) role of women in both traditional and modern China, and my thesis study was on the propagandist role of theatre and performing arts in the country.
After graduation, an unusual opportunity came up for me to stay in a dormitory with Chinese student teachers in a compound of Guangzhou province for a year, where I was able to improve my language skills and observe how the society really worked at first hand. I also attended as many live performances of Cantonese and Peking Opera as I could, drinking in the stylised artform and immense skill of the performers.
All this is a long form of pointing out how the two interests were always there, often working side by side.
Fast forward many years now, and I did eventually pursue my career choice to become an actress and singer, and came back home to my native UK, where I had spent my early childhood and also a year when I was 16 years old, because my father was on sabbatical leave from the university where he lectured.
I continued my artistic training here whilst landing acting work at the same time, and in due course met my actor/director husband, who very much encouraged me to keep going.
The life of a performer has always been precarious, unless you happen to be very well connected, which I certainly wasn’t. Things ticking along while I was still looking very youthful, but there came a point when I felt I could not get away with playing the pretty ingenue any longer, and neither did I want to. I was ready for a fresh challenge.
I went into school teaching for a while, but quickly realised I was not going to be happy doing that, and embarked on getting my teaching qualifications for both ballet and the London Academy of Dramatic Examinations (LAMDA) board.
Working towards the LAMDA exams entailed a 1:1spoken examination on a century of drama, literature and poetry, which was fascinating to study, though a tough exam. We could choose the century we wanted to focus on, and I, like an idiot, chose the 20th century. My teacher warned me- “This is the century when everyone could read and write. There’s a lot more work!”
I’m not sorry I did it, though. The 2nd part of that exam was to present a 20 minute presentation of at least one piece of drama, literature and poetry each and link them together through some sort of theme. I chose to look at the changing role of 20th Century Woman through those genres – and that became the theme of my first professional cabaret!
I had always loved watching snippets of cabaret in old films and knew there must be a way to bring these disparate ideas together in a satisfying piece. I engaged a director, who also loved history and literature, and together we researched women, occupations and concerns of women throughout the 20th century, and created a show with songs, drama pieces and poems reflecting all that I wanted to say on the subject. The show was called 20th Century Woman: the Compact Cabaret.
It got good press and led me to New York and an international cabaret conference at Yale University.
My career never looked back. I have been self-producing work on women’s history ever since!
What led you to add videos about historical women to your repertoire?
I had an idea knocking around in the back of my head that I could create a documentary series on women’s history using my performance skills to advance the narrative, much as I do in my shows. I was inspired by the work of British actor Kenneth Griffith, who created documentaries on the Boer War in South Africa, where he would be talking to camera and then ‘become’ the historic character he was talking about.
That’s exactly the approach I was already using in my cabarets. I talk to the audience and then go into character speaking their real words when possible, and use the lyrics of a song to express what they are feeling or what is happening to them. I knew this would be a unique way to present documentaries on television.
What really pushed me into it though, was the pandemic. All venues closed down and no live work was possible. A friend in America, Cece Otto, who does shows on the American woman’s experience, and I got together online and did some live shows over Zoom to both our audiences. I started to really see then how working online could widen my audience and protect me from the vagaries of concentrating solely on live performance.
My biggest challenges were to get used to singing into a phone or computer screen (and that still feels weird) and overcoming the tech (still learning that one, too!), but I recently made one little film on a long-forgotten woman composer Avril Coleridge-Taylor, whose music completely fell out of favour and became nearly impossible to find. I felt it was time to give her back a bit more time in the sun!
The series is titled Women Making History – Then and Now, which gives me the opportunity to look at current women who are pioneering right now. My next set of videos will be on English Queens, and possibly include Camilla, the Queen Consort and the Princess of Wales- both of whom are definitely making history!
What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
The most challenging- and exciting- thing is finding the material itself. Women’s stories have barely been chronicled in the same way men’s stories have. Unless a woman was particularly prominent, no-one really thought to record what she did. This is especially true of the ‘woman next door’ who’s work and roles have changed so much over the last 100 years, and who never thought herself that she was doing anything extraordinary in very difficult circumstances.
My grandmother was a case in point. She lived through two World Wars, was feisty as could be and battled her way through bombings, poverty and five children, including a particularly wayward son. It never occurred to her that she did anything special, nor her eldest daughter, my aunt, who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) during World War II. They were just getting on with it, as far as they were concerned. Why would anyone want to write about it? They were somewhat bewildered when I researched them for my show Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret. Sadly, they had both passed away when I got to portray them on stage- mind you, I don’t know how my Grandma might have reacted!
A question from Fiona-Jane: We are both passionate about celebrating women, our accomplishments and role in society. Do you ever feel women in Western civilisations are in danger of losing the ground we have gained? That we could be sleep walking into a new oppressive reality and could literally lose the rights we and our ancestral sisters have fought so hard for? If you do, what do you think we can/should do about it?
After spending much of the last few years watching the rise of Nazi Germany through daily newspaper reports in the United States, I think it is all too easy for people to lose rights because they aren’t paying attention. At the risk of repeating myself: Don’t take what we have for granted. Don’t look away when someone else’s rights are at risk. Don’t expect someone else to do the work.
Want to know about Fiona-Jane and her work?
Check out her website: http://www.fionajaneweston.com/
Subscribe to her newsletter: email@example.com
Subscribe to her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@FionaJaneWeston
Check out her latest program: Avril Coleridge-Taylor – A Lost Musical Legacy:
Com back tomorrow for another guest post from a long-time friend of the blog, Jack French. He always brings us good stories.
Very interesting. Thanks for interviewing Fiona (I love her work) and thanks to Fiona for introducing this blog to me.